Voluntary Simplicity Part 2

In the previous post, I spoke about restraint and practices of `voluntary simplicity’.  In this follow up post, I’d like to talk about the religious motivation for such a choice.

I associate religions with all the more severe and extreme forms of voluntary simplicity.  The obvious monastic examples include poverty, chastity, silence, and stark simplicity in food and shelter.  The whole idea of monastic retreat from civilization is a form of voluntary simplicity: going without the established culture of your time and place in history.  What is it about religion that inspires these choices, particularly in these extreme forms?

My answer to that question comes from Ken Wilber’s understanding of stages of spiritual development.  (Obviously, this is not unique to Wilber; he’s just the writer from whom I’ve learned this material).  In a healthy childhood and early adulthood, the establishment of a solid, secure and healthy ego is necessary and desirable.  However, once this stage is attained, the great moral traditions of the world inspire a person to learn and grow away from her own ego.  They teach us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow.  I don’t necessarily think that self-denial looks like Luther’s bleak pessimism about the depravity of humanity: we’re not worms.  Hence self-denial follows the establishment of a healthy ego.  Religiously, we are all precious children of the Most High.  But after the establishment of a healthy ego, some amount of self-denial is a worthy goal in itself.  The ego, for all its usefulness and necessity, is a powerful and selfish creature.  It demands satisfaction and, left to its own devices, values that satisfaction above all else.

I believe it is one of the great universal moral teachings to say that satisfying the ego is not the ultimate purpose of human life.  We are called for more: we are called to serve the happiness of our fellow humans, even to the detriment of ourselves.  In religious language, I like the idea that we are called to be a blessing in whatever situation we find ourselves in.  I think this calling is the main source of the religious call for simplicity: the part of the process of denying ourselves, of striving to go beyond the ego, it part of this greater calling to serve instead of being served.

Much of my own motivation these days comes from reading (and practicing) the mystical dimension of religion.  A major insight across the mystical traditions is the conclusion that all reality is unity.  As much as this takes many forms and languages in many traditions, I’m persuaded that the unity expressed by the great mystics is a common core idea.  At its fundamental core, the universe is is not-two.  This gives a direction to going beyond the ego.  The ego insists on, and is constructed on, the fact that it is a separate identity.  Going beyond the ego needs a great goal, a noble purpose; the Golden Rule is simple to state but difficult to motivate.  I find motivation for the Golden Rule in the idea, however strange and unreal, that the divisions between us are illusionary.  in particular, the division that creates my own ego, which is necessary for my development, is also illusion.  To limit myself in order to allow more for the world is the same as growing myself if, indeed, the world and I are not-two.

There is an entirely different religious direction I could see taking this discussion.  Perhaps this voluntary simplicity isn’t as much about denying the self as it is about building a less distracted lifestyle.  Religion, when healthy and whole, can be about building a new set of glasses with which to see the world, a set of glasses where the first are last, the meek are to be praised, and peacemakers will inherit the earth.  This is a difficult perspective to see in the midst of a busy, hectic and distracted life.  I’m under the impression that a major monastic motivation to leave the world was to avoid being caught up in the assumptions of the world.  In the midst of the frantic activity, it is very difficult to analyze and understand the assumptions which drive the world.  Stepping back gives the necessary perspective to see those assumption and challenge them, should we want to.

Lastly, I think religion offers a useful path towards realizing either a meagre or ambitious goal of voluntary simplicity and self-denial.  This path is through religious practices and disciplines.  This is quite ironic coming from me, since I’ve given up on almost all of those practices. But I see the value in them even though I’ve chosen to distance myself, and the meditation practice which I have chosen is motivated by hope in its long-term effect on my mind, spirit, choices and behaviours.

Voluntary Simplicity Part 1

A part of maturing into adulthood is the realization that restraint is necessary for human flourishing.  Many of the struggles of human lives (particularly in the rich, luxurious environment of privilege which I inhabit) involve controlling the desire to indulge and exercising restraint.  Restraint is a habit which can be practiced and improved; it is a psychological muscle which requires development and maintenance.

While restraint is necessary for all human adults to some extent, we all give ourselves over to particular indulgences while forgoing others.  I was recently inspired to think about the choice of where to exercise restraint.  This inspiration came in hearing about a university course taught by a human geographer on a topic which she called `Voluntary Simplicity.’  The course was a study of the various luxuries and comforts that a human in civilization might choose to forgo, from the superficial task of turning off your phone for a day to the extreme religious examples of vows of poverty and monasticism.  I was lead to two questions.  First, what do I forgo and why?  Second, what’s the religious motivation for giving up the comforts of the world and how does that play into my own decisions?  (I guess that was four questions.  In any case, I’ll leave the religious questions for this post.)

Without trying to make a claim of moral superiority, there are certain life choices I’ve made (along with my wife) which involve restraint, going without luxuries that many in our peer group enjoy.  (The reason that I emphatically do not wish to claim any moral high ground is my awareness of all the other luxuries in which I do indulge; but more on that later.)  We’ve chosen to live without a car.  Though we could afford something larger, we’ve chosen to live in a relatively small condominium suite without external storage.  (The fact that these are choices for us, where many live in small quarters without vehicles by necessity, is evidence of our wealth and privilege.)  These two choice are obvious enough that they come up in conversation; many of our friends want to know why we’ve made these decisions.

There answers are complicated.  Resource use is one reason, for sure.  Our footprint (in many senses of the word) is made smaller by cycling and living in high density housing.  Lifestyle is also a part.  We enjoy the activity, exercise and (some of) the culture of cycling.  There are behavioural reasons as well: making cycling a necessity ensure exercise; living in a small apartment puts a brake on our ability to accumulate possessions.  There are also problems with our choices.  Our ability to visit family is hindered by the lack of a car, which has caused tensions with some family members.  Likewise, our small apartment limits our ability to host guests overnight, particularly family, which also causes tension.

And to balance it out, there are many rich luxuries we do allow ourselves.  We travel frequently, including several trips to Europe in the last few years.  We buy imported goods, in my case including imported whiskey.  We spend most of our money on ourselves: travel, indulgent food, alcohol (at least for me),  hobbies, etc.  By global standards, there are many other luxuries and indulgences that I’m not mentioning for lack of awareness, simply because I take them for granted.

Should I forgo more of these luxuries?  I think about this question with some frequency.  I ask myself, in particular, about meat, alcohol and air travel.

Of the many argument for vegetarianism, the most convincing for me is the argument from resource use.  Animal are inefficient sources of nutrients, consuming far more in feed than they produce for our benefit.  The appalling treatment of food animals also give me pause.  (Interestingly, I’m not at all convinced by the position that eating animal is inherently ethically wrong.  I would have absolutely no ethical concerns at all if I solely ate meat from hunting where there is an overpopulation of hunt animals.  Maybe I should take up hunting?)   My only reason for not going vegetarian is convenience, which is pretty weak.  Well, convenience and the fact that I really, really love fresh fish.  Going without mammal and bird meat seems like a pretty easy sell, frankly, but fresh fish — that’s something else entirely.  As it happens, I live in the middle of the continent and only get fresh fish rarely, so maybe it’s not such a big deal.  Maybe I should take up sport fishing (where there are plentiful stocks, of course).

I also think about going without alcohol.  I appreciate the argument that alcohol is fermenting perfectly good grain supplies; while some calories still carry over, it’s not exactly a reliable stable food source.  Alcohol seems to me the perfect instance of the archetypical luxury in our society: normalized enough to seem a natural part of our culture but a completely unnecessary use of potentially valuable food resources.  (To say nothing of the difficult behavioural consequences of alcohol abuse.)  I can easily imagine going without alcohol on the grounds that at long as hunger is a world problem, good, arable grain land should be used to grow grain staples that actually feed people.

Lastly, I have long interior musings every time I book a plane trip.  It’s obvious to me that one of the most pressing instances of restraint required in the modern world is restraint in using fossil fuels.  A substantial part of our decision to go without a car related to fuel and energy use.  However, basically any good we’ve accomplished by all our cycling is easily overcome by the indulgence of frequent air travel.  Resource use, fossil fuel reduction and climate change give a very compelling argument that air travel is unreasonable and unsustainable.  I’m quite swayed by these arguments, but evidently not swayed enough, since I’m still booking plane trips.  It’s an interesting struggle.  Among the many reasons, I see two major hurdles.  The first is friends and family who live far away.  I’m not willing to resign myself to never (or very, very rarely) seeing my close friends and family who live more than a couple hundred kilometers distance.  I don’t think my family would be particularly pleased with me if I thought otherwise.  The second is more obviously selfish: I like travelling to interesting and beautiful places.  My vacations trips and years living overseas have been the source of many of my most formative experiences.  There is a great yearning to travel more, see new places and experience new cultures.

Of these three, giving up air travel seems by far the most difficult. For meat and alcohol, the impact of my potential restraint is almost entirely personal.  I’m slightly more difficult to entertain — going for drinks would be limited to tea or coffee — but that’s not a hardship I’d really regret imposing on my friends and family.  But giving up air travel has a huge impact on many of my important relationships, particular with my parents.  That’s a much harder pill to swallow and a much harder demand to make on the other parties in those relationships.  Why final question for this post is this: are my reservations reasonable?  It is acceptable to enjoy a luxury which wastes energy and produces huge amount of pollution because it is important to my relationships with my closest friends and family?  How does the ethical trouble of burning large quantities of fossil fuel in an airplane balance against the ethical good of going to visit and spent time with the people who love you?